Book review: Muslims and Islam in US Education: reconsidering multiculturalism

Book review: Muslims and Islam in US Education: reconsidering multiculturalism, by Liz Jackson

(London/New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 198. Hb. £104.00, Pb. £29.99.

Reviewed by Abdullah Almutairi

This book deals with a real problem. Here is my version of it. My nine-year-old son is a Saudi citizen who has lived in the U.S. since he was two years old. He goes to two schools. On the weekdays he goes to his American public school where he learns about subjects that do not include religion. On Saturdays, he goes to an Islamic school where he learns Arabic and Islam. As international students in the U.S., we want our son to have an education that helps him live in two societies: his current American society with all of its diversity and his future Saudi society where he will live when his mother and I finish our graduate studies and leave the U.S. He has to go to two schools because his American school does not deal with religion (Islam) which is an important part of his cultural surroundings. Also, his Islamic school is not equipped, we believe, to prepare him to relate to others in a diverse society. For example, they told him not to celebrate non-Islamic holidays such as Christmas and Halloween). This is a common experience for Muslims in the U.S., or those who want to prepare their children to live in Muslim-majority societies. Similarly, non-Muslim students in American public schools hear about major events related to Islam and Muslims in the media, but do not find (enough) space in their schools to discuss and understand these events.

Liz Jackson (2014) sheds light on these problems in her important book Muslims and Islam in U.S. Education and provides detailed analyses of the ways in which Islam and Muslims are represented in the U.S. school curriculum and mass media in the U.S. Then, she discusses the major educational approaches that deal with the fact of diversity, and argues that they all fail to provide us with policies and educational practices that will help students and teachers with the topic of Islam and Muslims. Finally, she proposes her own favored approach to this issue. In more detail, the book is a seven-chapter argument in favor of interculturalism over assimilationism, pluralism, or critical multiculturalism, illustrated using the case of Islam and Muslims in U.S. education. In the preface, the author introduces her personal experiences in “Muslim countries,” which led her to ask why she had not known anything about Islam prior to traveling to Muslim-majority countries. In the introduction, the Jackson moves from her own experience to the public experience of many students who live in a world where Islam has become a major factor in its politics, especially after 9/11, but who find little if any help from their formal education to understand this religion and community. The task here is “to examine the challenges teachers face and students experience in understanding Islam and Muslims, as part of U.S. and world communities” (p. 5). In chapter two, she reviews different perspectives on multicultural education that deal with difference in society, including assimilationism (conservative and liberal) and pluralism (traditional and critical multiculturalism).

Jackson recognizes the importance of the common grounds that assimilationists aim for, but she argues that should not be sought at the expense of dismissing differences and minority cultures. Further, the author appreciates the benefits of pluralism as a celebration of difference and as a demand of recognition, but at the same time, she thinks pluralism fails to fully satisfy the needs of students who live together in a diverse society. Islam and Muslims in the U.S. raise a special challenge for critical multiculturalism where the classic power-struggle framework appears to be less helpful. Chapters three and four analyze the information available about Islam and Muslims in the media and schools. The media tends to focus on extraordinary events which limits their viewers’ chances for more comprehensive accounts. Schools, on the other hand, provide more balanced views about Islam and Muslims, but are limited in space and narrow in scope. In the last two chapters, five and six, the author lays down her alternative path forward –interculturalism- and considers its implications for students and teachers.

Interculturalism is favorable to traditional multiculturalism, including critical multiculturalism, because it focuses on “setting the stage for dialogue and democratic communication across lines of social difference” (p. 114). I agree. Interculturalism is superior to assimilationism and critical multiculturalism as it provides better conditions for the self-other relationship, which in this case is the relationship between non-Muslims and Muslims. Assimilationists damage this relationship by allowing the self to dominate the other. Critical multiculturalists complicate this relationship by assuming categorical separation and conflict. Interculturalism, with its focus on dialogue, opens an opportunity for the self and the other to meet and to know each other. An interculturalist teacher would set the stage for her Muslim and non-Muslim students to engage in an open-ended communication about Islam using dialogue and critical examination. I will focus now in more detail on the concept of dialogue that Jackson develops.

Dialogue can be understood in different ways, for example, as an instrument, as an epistemic attitude, or as an ethical relationship. As an instrument, dialogue is a strategy to reach an already-known end. We find this usage in many of Socrates’ dialogues when he leads his partner to a specific point. Jackson rejects that conception. As an epistemic relation, dialogue is an approach by which to “understand” and “know” the other. As an ethical relationship, dialogue goes beyond what we “know” and aims to relate to the other even if the other’s otherness is beyond our understanding.

Jackson’s conception of dialogue seems to fit the idea of dialogue as an epistemic relation. The goal of the intercultural dialogue in her view is “to ascertain another person’s viewpoint”(p. 117), to achieve “a public shared language of discourse” that can be achieved by offering students “sources of information and ideas,” (p. 118) and by “prepar[ing] students to evaluate knowledge claims” (p. 124). This form of dialogue is enhanced by “moderate cultural relativism” which is derived from a “presumption of equal worth” and “affirmative action pedagogy” through which teachers work to empower unpopular claims. This account of dialogue is driven by “an optimistic attitude toward others’ viewpoints. I offer two comments that might enhance this valuable account: the first targets the teacher-student relationship advocated by Jackson; the second refers more generally towards the need to supplement the epistemic account of dialogue with an ethical account that is hospitable to others beyond the condition of understanding.

First, Jackson advocates for “a student-centered approach to education” (p. 120) in which teaching is facilitating. In this approach, teachers can, but need not, share their own views on the issues that their students discuss. My worry is that this approach is not the best way to achieve Jackson’s goals, because teaching as facilitating limits the student-teacher relationship and risks alienating teachers. When centered on students, education tends to miss the in-between space that is essential to dialogue. Dialogue is an experience of sharing the self with others. By centering our education on our students, we fail to help them see others/their teachers as partners in their educational experiences. The facilitator teacher is an outsider, an organizer with limited intervention. Hess & McAvoy (2015) report that the majority of students want to know their teachers’ personal take on the controversial issues they discuss in class. The opponents of disclosure worry about teachers’ influence. However, the ability to think critically requires facing epistemic and social authorities. Dialogue with disclosing teachers can provide a safe context for students to face such authorities without losing their autonomy. Autonomy, which seems to be the main reason behind the worry about teachers’ disclosure, is better enhanced by teachers who disclose within dialogic contexts more than by those who withhold. Disclosing teachers offer their students the experience of dealing with, and challenging, authorities’ points of view. Let us remember that the world out there, discovery of which should be the aim of education, is full of disclosure but lacks dialogue. Schools should bring them together.

To limit the work of teachers to facilitation constrains their own educational opportunities to learn about Islam and Muslims. Facilitation seems to encourage this scene: the classroom gets divided into two parties: those who are observed – students- and those who observe – teachers. Dewey (1938) describes this situation as follows: “When pupils were seen as a class rather than as a social group, the teacher necessarily acted largely from the outside, not as a director of processes of exchange in which all had a share” (p. 59). To enhance dialogue, students need to visit the “in-between space” (Buber, 1970) in which teachers are real partners and not as mere organizers.

Second, Jackson rightly recognizes that students will face many challenges, at least in the near future. Among these, a mass media that will not be helpful for educators seeking to educate their students about Islam and Muslims, teachers who will not be effectively equipped to deal with such controversial issues, and for the permanent risk of misunderstanding and dialogue failure. Therefore, I argue, therefore, that her account of dialogue needs to be supplemented by an ethical attitude that aims to invite and to host the other, regardless of what we know or understand about that other. Levinas (1969) calls this unconditional welcome “hospitality.” Watching the acceleration of recent terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S., I realize that we’re facing difficult times in which the space of epistemic understanding is reduced. To relate to each other, we need an unconditional commitment to others and an ability to open ourselves to them without filtering their arrival. For the issues relating to Muslims and Islam in the U.S. education system we need to allow our students and teachers to practice their hospitable nature by inviting the otherness of others to come and to be safe. 

This is a precondition for dialogue. Famously, Levinas (1981) distinguishes between saying (dire, literally “to say”) and the said (dit). Saying, Levinas argues, “is communication, to be sure, but as a condition for all communication, as exposure” (1981, p. 48). The idea here, for Levinas, is to argue that “communication is not reducible to the phenomenon of truth and the manifestation of truth…” (1981, p. 48). The content of what is communicated is the said, which is always fixing the reference of the concept; “the saying is fixed in a said, is written, becomes a book, law and science” (1981, p. 159). Saying refers to the ethical commitment to or being for, the other. It is the prerequisite of the other as Other that makes communication possible. Saying, Levinas explains, is “antecedent to the verbal signs it conjugates, to the linguistic systems and the semantic glimmerings, a forward preceding languages, it is the proximity of one to the other, the commitment of an approach, the one for the other, the very signifyingness of signification” (1981, p. 5). It seems to me that Jackson’s argument focuses more on the said and needs to be supplemented by the focus on the prior relationship of saying. Hospitality reminds Muslim and non-Muslim students and educators of what is prior to their cognitive commonality; it reminds them that they live with and for each other. When I would travel my mother used to say, “I hope you find an open heart and an open door there.” I hope the same for my son and his generation.

Buber, M. (1970). I and thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Scribner.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Touchstone New York: Simon and Schuster.
Jackson, L (2014). Muslims and Islam in U.S. education: reconsidering multiculturalism. London & New York: Routledge. 
Hess, D. E., & McAvoy, P. (2014). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. London & New York: Routledge.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity (A. Lingis, trans.). Pittsburgh, Penn.: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1981). Otherwise than being or beyond essence. Pittsburgh, Penn.: Duquesne University Press.


You can read an interview with Liz Jackson here.